Awards > Awardee Interviews > Interview

Interview: Scott A. Chambers

2019 Medard W. Welch Award Recipient
Interviewed by Dick Brundle, October 20, 2019

BRUNDLE:  My name is Dick Brundle.  I’m representing the AVS here in Columbus in October 2019.  I’m here to interview Scott Chambers, who is this year’s Medard W. Welsh Award winner, and I’m going to start off by reading what the award is for.  It’s for “Pioneering contributions to the understanding, the origin, and influence of heterogeneities, defects, and disorder in complex oxide epitaxial films and heterostructures.”  There will be a special lecture for this on Wednesday entitled “Defect-mediated coupling of built-in potentials at interfaces involving epitaxial complex oxides.”  A lot of words, all of this.  So please, Scott, just say hello so that the transcriber will recognize your voice. 
CHAMBERS:  Okay.  Hello.  My name is Scott Chambers.
BRUNDLE:  Good.  So I like to start these by asking about your origins, so where you were born, your parents’ background, and then we’ll move on to how you got interested in science, etc. 
CHAMBERS:  I was born and raised in San Diego, California.  My father was the lead Contracts Manager for the Space and Defense Division of General Dynamics and my mother was a homemaker.  My father thought I should be a lawyer because I argued with him so much and so well, or so he told me. But I couldn't stand the thought of being a lawyer and from middle school on was very interested in physical science.  I had a very excellent high school chemistry teacher who inspired me to major in chemistry, and so I did that.  I went off to University of California at San Diego as an undergraduate and majored in chemistry and minored in music.
BRUNDLE:  Yes.  That actually covers some of the follow-up questions I would have, such as when did you first get interested in science?  So already in high school, and it’s under the influence of a particular teacher, right? 
CHAMBERS:  Mm-hmm [yes].

BRUNDLE:  So it was a chemistry teacher? 
BRUNDLE:  And that inspired you to go to San Diego.  Okay, so you got your bachelor’s degree from there, and then you did your Ph.D. in Oregon State University. 
CHAMBERS:  Correct. 
BRUNDLE:  Why that?  Why did you go there? 
CHAMBERS:  In the summer between my junior and senior year I received an NSF-funded undergraduate research fellowship at OSU.  I did my research with Ed Piepmeier in the analytical chemistry division and it was a great experience.  A friend from UCSD who was also in the program did his work with Darrah Thomas in the physical chemistry division, working on photoelectron spectroscopy. My friend and I would go hiking and surfing on the weekends and I would ask him what he was doing and vice versa, and I became very interested in his work.  So I met Darrah that summer and I thought, “Hmm.  This could be really good.”  I went ahead and applied to the OSU graduate program along with other universities. In the end, the most attractive offer overall came from OSU. So I decided to return to the Northwest and do my Ph.D. there in Darrah’s group.
BRUNDLE:  Okay.  Darrah at that time—Well, I guess the whole of his career up there he was doing gas phase XPS. 
CHAMBERS:  Mm-hmm [yes].
BRUNDLE:  So you were in not exactly at the start of that, because Siegbahn and company started it, but Darrah was certainly in the next wave and one of the leading people. So in that work, what particularly were you interested in in the XPS work?  I mean my own interest originally was not particularly the XPS.  That was a means to an end.  It was the electronic structure of small molecules.  What was your interest? 
CHAMBERS:  Pretty much, yes.
BRUNDLE:  The same thing.  Okay. 
CHAMBERS:  I was interested in the electronic structure of molecules, and I saw XPS as a very interesting and under-utilized way to get at that.  I liked the technique, but I also liked the unique information it yielded.  So I did my thesis on x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy of small molecules in the gas phase, mainly looking at shake phenomena, to see what could be learned about electronic structure not only in the ground state, but also in excited states with core holes.
BRUNDLE:  Okay, yes.  The shake stuff is now coming back to haunt us practically, as people in solid state are wanting to use XPS more quantitatively than I think it can easily do.  And to do that, you really have to understand shake structure and multiplet splitting and all that stuff. 
CHAMBERS:  You really do, yes.
BRUNDLE:  We actually need more gas phase work now to understand it.
CHAMBERS:  I agree.
BRUNDLE:  Now we’ve got better instruments and can take it more easily. 
BRUNDLE:  Okay.  So you did your Ph.D. there and after that you went on immediately after that…  Was it immediately after that that’s when you went to George Fox University? 
BRUNDLE:  I recognize that name.  He was the founder of the Quakers.  
CHAMBERS:  Mm-hmm [yes].
BRUNDLE:  Is that why you went there? 
BRUNDLE:  You don't have any background in connection with that? 
CHAMBERS:  I have no background in the Quaker tradition.  I was interested in teaching.  That was my primary career goal, and so I applied to a number of different schools.  George Fox was the only one that opened up at the time, and so it was a fairly easy decision because it was either that or take a post-doc down in the Houston area, which I didn't particularly want to do.  [Laughter]  It was a matter of taking a post-doc that would probably lead to employment in the oil industry or an academic position in a liberal arts college, which is really what I wanted to do at the time.  So I went ahead and took the job at George Fox.
BRUNDLE:  Was that an entirely an undergraduate program? 
CHAMBERS:  Mm-hmm [yes], at the time.  Yeah.
BRUNDLE:  But it’s quite surprising and maybe significant that a lot of the people that I’ve interviewed over the past years, after their Ph.Ds. or even sometimes as undergraduates and graduates, they went to small liberal arts colleges, not the major places.  I think that serves people in good stead doing that. 
CHAMBERS:  I’ve taught in bigger institutions since then, and I think in retrospect the best education that I was able to give students was in the context of a smaller liberal arts college.
BRUNDLE:  Yeah.  But you didn't say there, you were at Bethel University in St. Paul.  I know nothing about that.  What… 
CHAMBERS:  It’s similar to George Fox in that it’s a private liberal arts Christian university, and I am a Christian, but I wasn’t a Quaker at the time.  [Laughs]  (And I’m still not.)  The reason I left George Fox was they were having some financial troubles at the time and it was hard to get support for the academic program.
BRUNDLE:  When did you leave? 
CHAMBERS:  In 1982.
BRUNDLE  Okay, because it amalgamated eventually with something else, right? 
CHAMBERS:  It did.  Well, it ended up growing quite a bit after I left—maybe because I left! I don't know.  (laughter).  But they did better.  They came out of the hole that they were in financially and ended up with an excellent academic program.  I think I could have stayed there, but I had a good opportunity to go to Bethel, which is in the Twin Cities.  Bethel was a bigger—about a factor of three larger student body—liberal arts university.  I went there and taught chemistry for three years. However, starting in my first year at George Fox, I developed an undergraduate-oriented research program in surface science.  That’s when I started doing surface science type work.
BRUNDLE:  Stop there a minute.  You come from a gas phase background, just as I did.  I started learning about solid state and surfaces when I was a post-doc at Bell Labs.  I’d never even heard of a Fermi level before then.  How did you get interested in the surface side of the business? 
CHAMBERS:  Well, I attended a lot of seminars at OSU on surface science.  There were several really good speakers that came through—Gabor Somorjai, Dave Shirley.  People of this caliber came through and gave great talks. I was inspired.
BRUNDLE:  Ah, okay. 
CHAMBERS:  I became fascinated by surface structure and electronic and chemical properties.  I went to some ACS and APS meetings and attended sessions and was looking for a way to get into that business.  So when I was at George Fox, it turns out that the Oregon Graduate Center was just 45 minutes away, and there was a guy there at the time by the name of Lyn Swanson, who was a top-flight surface scientist…
BRUNDLE:  Yes.  I recognize the name. 
CHAMBERS:  …who did work function measurements for interesting electron-emitting cathode materials.  He and Paul Davis, who was also at Oregon Graduate Center, were doing great work. I approached them and I said, “If I get my own funding, could I come work in your lab?” and they said, “Sure.”  So I applied to Research Corporation for funds and I ended up getting grants every year for five years.  During that time, I was able to buy some small pieces of equipment.  I bought a CMA, for instance, and some other things and designed and had built a five-axis manipulator, that kind of thing.  I combined my hardware with theirs and gradually built up a functional system and was able to publish one or two papers per year in surface science of complex materials, mainly work function measurements and their relationship to surface structure and composition.
BRUNDLE:  So you're going this during the summer when you were not teaching. 
CHAMBERS:  Right.  Pretty much.  I did a little bit during the year, but it was mostly in summer.  I got undergraduates involved and they would be coauthors with me.  Then when I went to the Midwest to Bethel, I took the equipment with me and I then did the same thing, only I did it with John Weaver at the University of Minnesota and basically said the same thing to him.  “If I fund myself, can I come in and set up shop in your lab there?” and he said, “Sure.”  So I did that for a few years as well with funding from Research Corporation and the NSF.
BRUNDLE:  Again, with undergraduates then or with graduate students? 
CHAMBERS:  Yes, with undergraduates from Bethel.  I would bring them with me down to the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota and we would do research during the summer and spring break and other times like that.
BRUNDLE:  So you obviously enjoy teaching and you enjoy teaching undergraduates. 
CHAMBERS:  Mm-hmm [yes].
BRUNDLE:  I mean I taught university in England.  I have to say I did not enjoy teaching undergraduates!  [Laughs]  Because most of them were not very interested.  I enjoy teaching graduate courses, but not the undergraduate courses.  I think probably at liberal arts colleges you probably get people who are more committed. 
CHAMBERS:  Well, at least there are some.  Not all of them.  Many of them were interested in chemistry only as a means to an end.  The end was medical school for many of them.
BRUNDLE:  Yes, premed. 
CHAMBERS:  I was a physical chemist, of course, and so that was the least favorite subject for a lot of those premed students, but that’s okay.
BRUNDLE:  Yeah.  I had to teach biology and bio people thermodynamics, of all things, and they would ask me, “How is this possibly relevant?” 
BRUNDLE:  And frankly, I didn't know.  So then I had to learn and find out and come back and incorporate that. 
CHAMBERS:  Yeah!  That’s the same thing that I had to do.
BRUNDLE:  So you did this in total, then, for eight years at the two places.  Why did you leave?  Why did you decide to change course? 
CHAMBERS:  Actually, after eight years of teaching undergraduates, I got a little burned out on it because there were pretty heavy teaching loads at both places.
BRUNDLE:  It’s a good thing you enjoyed it, then, really! 
CHAMBERS:  I did like it, but I thought, “Can I do this the rest of my life?” and I thought, “I don't think I can.”  At the same time, I was getting more interested in surface science research and I decided that I wanted to pursue that full-time.  So I decided to make the jump from the small college scene to a full-time research position.  I applied at a couple of national labs and I also applied at Boeing because they were establishing at the time a new research center for aerospace electronics that was very exciting, lots of possibilities.  They were happy to have me come and I was happy to go, so I moved there in 1987 and started building up an MBE effort for metals and semiconductors in what was called the High Technology Center at Boeing in Seattle.
BRUNDLE:  So their interest was in terms of specialized devices, making…aerospace stuff. 
CHAMBERS:  Yes.  Aerospace, mainly defense, space and defense type applications.  But they had a small fundamental science effort within that largely technology development effort, and my group was one of the groups that did the more fundamental things.  We did interface science in support of the device programs.
BRUNDLE:  So you both acquired and built MBE equipment and developed analytical techniques along with that. 

CHAMBERS:  Mm-hmm [yes].
BRUNDLE:  I was trying to remember back when I first knew you and actually, what I remember strongly was you combining RHEED (reflection high-energy electron diffraction) with MBE to get detailed information. 
CHAMBERS:  Yeah, that effort didn’t actually start until after I moved to PNNL.  A lot of people were doing RHEED.  One step I took that had not been taken was to incorporate an Auger spectrometer into an MBE chamber, use the RHEED beam to excite Auger electrons so I could get structural and compositional information in real time during film growth.
BRUNDLE:  So why did you move there? 
CHAMBERS:  Okay, so what happened is after five really wonderful years at Boeing, the Cold War ended.
BRUNDLE:  Oh, so no funding anymore? 
CHAMBERS:  Well, the internal market for everything we were developing kind of evaporated.  We were a corporate research lab and the Space and Defense group lost of lot of its business and our funding was cut as a result.  It was very memorable.  At Christmastime, the VP for research came in and told the entire research staff, “The corporation in very excited about your work.  You did great this year.  Keep it up!  Have a wonderful Christmas.  We’ll see you in the new year.”  I got back in the new year and my immediate manager took me aside and he said, “I’ve got some bad news,” and I go, “What?”  He says, “Well, the HTC is probably going away in the next six months.  So I would recommend that you start looking for another job.”  [Laughs]
BRUNDLE:  A familiar story. 
CHAMBERS:  Yes.  I knew people from PNNL and they were at the time establishing a new laboratory called the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, which was intended to be a fundamental science-type effort to support environmental technology development.
BRUNDLE:  Yeah, to clear up their previous mess. 
CHAMBERS:  Pretty much.  Not their mess, but those close by at the Hanford site. That was very exciting because the main agenda there was going to be oxides of various kinds.  I had been working on III-V’s, silicon/germanium and metals, so getting into oxides to me was a very exciting possibility.  So I made that switch at that point.
BRUNDLE:  Okay.  When did you move there?  What year was that? 
CHAMBERS:  1992.
BRUNDLE:  ’92.  Oh, that was…  I left IBM in ’93, and actually I went up there and interviewed for a job. 
CHAMBERS:  Really?
BRUNDLE:  A little earlier.  I think it may have been ’92.  I wasn’t actually seriously interested at that point because I didn't think I was going to be leaving IBM, but I went up there. They were looking at starting something new that they thought I might be suitable for, but I don't exactly remember what it was.  But I decided no and stuck with IBM for another couple years before I eventually left—the same circumstances as you with Boeing.  It wasn’t…  They didn't actually say, “We’re going to close you all down,” but they said, “Your job as a manager now is to get rid of all the people you’ve recently hired in the group you’ve built up.”  [Laughs]  So I left along with that. 
CHAMBERS:  Painful!  Yeah.
BRUNDLE:  So you’ve been there how long now? 
CHAMBERS:  27 years.
BRUNDLE:  A long time, yeah.  How has that developed over that time?  The emphasis has changed or is the mission…? 
CHAMBERS:  Well, the Environmental Molecular Science Lab (EMSL) has had several managing organizations at DOE.  It started off being co-managed by Basic Energy Sciences and the Environmental Management part of DOE.  After a few years it was transferred to the Office of Biological and Environmental Research (OBER).  That’s where it is now, and what has happened over the years is the EMSL started off as a multi-faceted research lab that had a nice balance of physics, chemistry, material science, biology and geoscience.  But then under OBER, the focus was narrowed and resources were concentrated on biology and atmospheric sciences.  Several chemists and materials scientists, including me, are still in the EMSL.  But in the summer of 2021 we will be moving to the new physical sciences building for which we will break ground in March 2020.
BRUNDLE:  Okay.  What is the mission of material science at PNNL? 
CHAMBERS:  PNNL, like other multi-program national labs, has several strong programs in material science funded by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences in the Physical and Computational Sciences Directorate at PNNL. The one I lead is entitled, “Electronic, Magnetic, and Optical Properties of Doped Metal Oxide Epitaxial Films and Interfaces”. Its mission is pretty much as stated in the title. We have other programs on topics such as nucleation and self-assembly of hierarchical materials, molecularly organized nanostructured materials and the like. These programs are all are focused on fundamental materials science issues that are quite important to understand in order to materials development away from the Edisonian approaches that are often used. Other more applied programs are funded in the Energy and Environment Directorate (EED) and the National Security Directorates (NSD) of PNNL.
BRUNDLE:  Is there anything in the background in this mission, though, that is still connected with the environment oxides? 
CHAMBERS:  Yes, indeed.  There’s a lot of research being done in EED and NSD on topics ranging from new solids for long-term storage of radionuclides to materials for more efficient fuel cells to heterogeneous catalyst development for environmental remediation and clean energy. My Epitaxial Oxides group still does some collaborative research on film growth and surface chemical properties of model mineral surfaces made by molecular beam epitaxy, but it’s a minor theme nowadays. For some years I had funding from the Environmental Management Science program of DOE in collaboration with outstanding geochemists like Gordon Brown from Stanford and John Zachara from PNNL to do this kind of work.  But that funding went away in the early 2000s and so I have gone more in the basic energy sciences direction. That’s where I am now, and the materials science division of BES funds my work which has a strong clean energy orientation.
BRUNDLE:  Okay.  I noticed there was a particular…  I was reading through what is said here that I liked.  “For understanding the relationship between atomistic composition in optical, magnetic, and photochemical properties,” so that’s a big thing.  Then your goal is “to develop defensible structure composition property relationships based on actual as opposed to idealized properties.”  You like to expand on that a little bit? 
CHAMBERS:  Sure!  I would be happy to.  There are many people who make complex oxide films, but they don't really put in enough effort into characterization because their goal is to learn new physics based on idealized models of the materials.
BRUNDLE:  That’s not your goal, then. 
CHAMBERS:  We want to learn new physics and chemistry, but we want to understand and interpret the functional properties based on actual materials properties.  So we spend a lot of time characterizing our materials and asking ourselves the hard questions about the non-idealities that may be present and how these might be influencing functional properties.  Over the last decade I have been pushing pretty hard in this area. I firmly believe that we need accurate and detailed descriptions of the compositions and structures of the materials we synthesize, at both the nanoscale and the microscale, if we’re going to claim to have discovered exotic physics and new functionalities.
BRUNDLE:  And a lot of that is oriented towards defects in materials. 
CHAMBERS:  Defects.  Yes, defects are always present in real materials.  I’m going to give a talk on this topic on Wednesday, and I will make two points at the beginning.  One of them is - the good thing about complex oxides is that they have so many degrees of freedom.  The other is - the bad thing about complex oxides is that they have so many degrees of freedom!  The same physical forces that give us so much flexibility in making complex layered structures can also come back to bite us in the form of defects that can form in unexpected ways.
BRUNDLE:  Okay.  Now this sounds a little bit like catalysis to me, and I don't know.  We can strike this out of we don't like it.  But there were groups that really wanted to study the fundamental issues and didn't necessarily work on things that were real world.  On the other hand, there’s a whole other set of people who worked on all kinds of things but never could reproduce them from one to the other, and therefore, if they got different results, they’d just say, “Well my material is different than yours.” 
CHAMBERS:  Mm-hmm [yes].  That’s the exact same problem.
BRUNDLE:  And these two, it seemed like, should never meet, right? 
CHAMBERS:  Yeah.  That is exactly the same problem that we have in the realm I’m talking about. 
BRUNDLE:  Very good.  Let’s see.  You’ve also been heavily involved in AVS for many years, right?  You’ve been on committees and chaired divisions and Northwest chapter, of course.  What other societies are you involved in? 
CHAMBERS:  I’ve been involved in the American Physical Society.  I recently finished a term on the Executive Committee of the Division of Materials Physics in the APS, and I’ve also been involved in a small workshop called IWOX (International Workshop on Oxide Surfaces) since it started about 20 years ago.  I organized the workshop twice in the US and have been on the International Advisory Committee for about 10 or 12 years now.  The workshop happens every other year in the US, Europe or Asia and draws 50 - 80 people who are really interested in fundamental properties of oxide surfaces. 
BRUNDLE:  Who funds that? 
CHAMBERS:  The home institution of the organizer, DOE and equipment vendors we invite to participate 
BRUNDLE:  Oh.  But that’s always a hard point for those things. 
CHAMBERS:  Yeah.  Whoever’s organizing the workshop in a given year has to go out and get the funding.
BRUNDLE:  Because it’s not an ongoing funding thing. 
CHAMBERS:  Right, no ongoing funding from any professional societies.
BRUNDLE:  Okay.  I think we’re probably through most of the things, but I usually end up by asking the person what kind of advice…  You know, the situation, as you’ve said, has changed several times during your career.  Might be changing again right now.  [Laughter]  
CHAMBERS:  Mm-hmm [yes].
BRUNDLE:  What advice would you have—I was going to say for people doing their Ph.D.s, but you’ve been so involved in undergraduates, them too—in terms of how they should follow a career, their interests, etc.? 
CHAMBERS:  Interesting.  I was asked that same question for an after-dinner speech I gave at a BES Principal Investigators Meeting this past summer.  My answer was this: Pursue what really interests you and go deep into a few subjects.  Try to really figure out what’s going on in a few areas rather than spreading yourself out over lots of areas and not going very deep in anything.  That’s my advice, and it’s based on what I think ultimately gives a scientist the greatest satisfaction - really getting to the bottom of something.
BRUNDLE:  That’s pretty much in line with the answer I usually get from people, so it’s consistent and I think very good advice.  If you're going to be serious in your career in science you need to do that, I think.  I think if you dodder around and jump on bandwagons, let’s say… 
BRUNDLE:  …it may be good at the beginning, but it won't serve you well in the long run.  Got to go deep. 
CHAMBERS:  I couldn’t agree more.
BRUNDLE:  So anything else that you’d like to add at this point?  No? 
CHAMBERS:  No, I don't think so.
BRUNDLE:  Okay.  Well, thank you very much.  That was very enjoyable. 
CHAMBERS:  Thank you, Dick.
BRUNDLE:  Eventually we’ll get the transcript and I will send it back to you and we’ll go from there. 
CHAMBERS:  Okay.  Very good.  Thank you.